(This essay was also posted with the San Francisco Chronicle, February 23, 2009.)
The Obama administration must not try to speak to something called the “Muslim world.” It does not exist!
To offer a dialogue with the Muslim world is precisely to play on the narrative of Osama bin Laden: the world is divided into two parts, the “West” and the “Muslims.” This narrative allows bin Laden to cast himself as the best protector of such a virtual Muslim world.
From Gaza to India, most of the conflicts where Muslims are involved have nothing to do with Islam. Hamas represents Palestinian nationalism under a thin Islamic garb. In Iraq, factions are competing over land and power, not Islamic law. The Bombay attacks stemmed from the conflict between India and Pakistan, fueled by the Pakistani army.
Moreover, Muslims in the West want to be considered first as Western citizens, not as the bridge-head of a foreign influence. Speaking of a Muslim world means pointing to “our” Muslims as foreigners. By addressing the “Muslim world,” do we mean to suggest that the West is defined by Christianity or by secularism?
President Obama cannot speak as the head of the Christian world. But to present the rule of law and human rights as typically Western secular values gives credence to authoritarian Arab leaders and Muslim conservative clerics, who are happy to present these values as “foreign.”
If President Obama tries to open an official dialogue with them, he will effectively define these leaders as representative of the “Muslim world,” thus pre-empting any change. Our policy must recognize the diversity of Islamic people, not assuming a monolithic world.
Olivier Roy is Visiting Professor of Political Science aand author of “The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East,”(Columbia University Press, 2008).
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